Throughout my childhood, living thousands of miles from family on both sides, we treasured every piece of mail, especially at Christmastime (see St. Nicholas’ Day). There was no such thing as junk mail, so every single letter, parcel, or card we received was personal, most often from a family member far away. We savored every single new card as it arrived, identifying the sender by the handwriting on the envelope, admiring the stamps (with me eyeing them for my collection), marveling at the colors, the artwork, and the quality of the card stock, reading and re-reading the loving greeting, giving it pride of place in the living room, and adding it to the running count of the number we had received to date. When I set up a household of my own I began sending and receiving my own cards, and still delight in the tradition and treasure all that it signifies.
I wouldn’t dream of imposing any sense of obligation upon people who choose not to send holiday cards, have perforce trimmed down their list, or now send electronic greetings. (This year a dear friend has sent me an electronic Advent calendar, which is bringing me as much delight with each new day as did the paper ones of yore.) I know that my loved ones love me whether or not they send me a card and, given the stress that accompanies the season, have no desire to add to it. Nevertheless, I note the decline of the practice with some sadness, not least because of what it means for the venerable institution of the Post Office.
My season starts at the Post Office with the selection of the holiday stamps, as I weigh the different domestic and international options. The USPS holiday stamps have never been as glorious or imaginative as those from the U.K., but nevertheless one still has the choice between a Christian Madonna and Child, a generic holiday or seasonal-themed stamp, and ones marking Chanukah or Kwanzaa.
Choosing the cards is much harder but also much more fun. I try to choose UNICEF cards or others made by companies who donate at least part of their proceeds to a charity, but sadly, our town library no longer has its annual UNICEF-card sale and the local stores have a very limited selection of such cards. I can spend hours poring over the options, what with my quirky personal taste and the myriad criteria in choosing cards for all the different friends and family members on my list. If I like the picture on the front, the greeting inside might not be appropriate; the card might be too religious, not Christmassy enough, too ordinary, too American, not American enough, not seasonal enough, or offensive to my aesthetic or cultural sensibilities in some subtle but indefinable way. For many years I chose snowy New England scenes for the New Year’s greetings to our Indian family because I thought that the wintry landscapes might bring with them an agreeable chill (and perhaps would make them glad of the relative mildness of their own winter season). For seven successive years in the 1980s, Eve, Andrew, and I issued letterpress-printed winter solstice cards from Whetstone Press, and every season I search the shops in vain for cards that can measure up to them in my eyes.
Our family in England strive to capture a quintessentially English Christmas for us. Their “Across the Miles” cards liberally feature Robin Redbreasts, pillar boxes, double-decker buses, and blazing Christmas puddings, guaranteed to pull at the heartstrings. Dear Auntie Bette, the family matriarch, invariably sends the biggest Across the Miles card, and often dispatches a second for good measure if she finds one that has a message she prefers or that better conveys the spirit of Christmas Past.
A few of our friends make their own cards, and we look forward eagerly to the new edition every year. Friends with small children send us beautiful photos of their beaming faces, and we marvel at how much they’ve grown, thinking fondly back on the days when we still had a child at home. Some, especially the English relatives, send their cards bright and early (Uncle Len’s and Auntie Angy’s was always the first to arrive, making sure to beat the Christmas rush). Others, particularly our Indian family members, send them in time for New Year, and still others, the Ukrainian branch of the family, time them to arrive by January 7th, Russian Orthodox Christmas.
Every year, no matter how Scrooge-like I resolve to be, the arrival of each new card, carrying across the miles the loving spirit of the person who painstakingly sought it out or created it, ineluctably erodes my Grinchiness, wearing away my resistance until I simply give up and let the magic enter in.
Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All!